On January 29th, 2010, a jury found Scott Roeder guilty of 1st degree premeditated murder in the shooting of Kansas Dr. George Tiller, as well as two counts of aggravated assault.
The jury, who had listened to 5 days of testimony, took less than an hour of deliberation once closing remarks were made.
Yesterday, the jury was informed that they would not be ruling on a charge of voluntary manslaughter, a fear many pro-choice advocates expressed, as the sentencing could be as little as 5 years. Because of Roeder’s premeditated action and the fact that there was no immediate threat against him, Judge Warren Wilbert instead ruled that Roeder must be found either guilty or innocent on the charge of first degree murder in the death of Dr. George Tiller. Additionally, he was charged with two counts of aggravated assault for pulling a gun on two others during his crime.
Although the jury returned quickly with a verdict, there was little surprise in the fast turn around. In Roeder’s own testimony yesterday he repeated the fact that he did commit the murder of Dr. Tiller, as well as recite the steps that he took prior to the act, with plans that went all of the way back to 1993. He also stated that he did not regret his actions.
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The prosecuting team has announced its intention to go for a "hard 50" during the sentencing process. "Hard 50," a sentencing technique used frequently in Kansas murder trials, required that the convicted murderer be required to serve a minimum of 50 years in prison before even a possibility of parole.
Sentencing will be scheduled for March 9th, 2010 at 8:45 a.m.
We will continue to update this post with statements as they come in.
"The family of Dr. George Tiller would like to thank the jury,
District Attorney Nola Foulston and her office and law enforcement for
their service in this difficult matter. Once again, a Sedgwick County
jury has reached a just verdict. We also want to thank George’s
countless friends and supporters in Wichita and around the country who
have offered their comfort.
"At this time we hope that
George can be remembered for his legacy of service to women, the help
he provided for those who needed it and the love and happiness he
provided us as a husband, father and grandfather."
"The jury examined the facts of this case and rightfully convicted
Scott Roeder for the brutal murder of Dr. George Tiller inside his
church in Kansas. Our thoughts are with Dr. Tiller’s family and
friends. Even though this conviction brings a murderer to justice, it
won’t replace the husband, father, and grandfather they lost last May.
Dr. Tiller was a tireless advocate for reproductive health who called
on us to ‘trust women’ to make the personal, private decisions that are
best for them and their families. We will continue to honor his legacy
of compassion and resolve.
"We also call on opponents of a woman’s right to choose to end the
practice of inflammatory rhetoric and tactics that inspire this kind of
violent action from the most extreme factions of the anti-choice
movement. No other abortion provider’s family should have to endure the
tragedy of seeing their loved one killed for providing an essential and
legal health service to women."
justice was served for Dr. Tiller, his family and abortion providers
who live in fear of physical attacks, harassment and intimidation every
day. The jury swiftly and unanimously convicted Mr. Roeder, rejecting
his defense for cold-blooded murder. Dr. Tiller’s shooting was a
calculated crime by Mr. Roeder’s own admission, and that is the
definition of premeditated murder.
As our investigative research last summer found, anti-choice forces have targeted abortion providers
for decades – with appalling physical attacks, threats and intimidation
– far too often with impunity. Yet abortion is a legal medical service,
a fundamental part of healthcare for women and a core constitutional
right. It was critical that this trial show that the lives of doctors
who perform necessary, legal services will be protected by the full
force of the law.
Just two days after NARAL Pro-Choice America submitted a letter asking the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate anti-choice activities as domestic terrorism, an extremist opened fire on a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado, murdering three people and injuring nine others.
On a frigid January afternoon this year, a day before the 43rd anniversary of Roe v. Wade, about a dozen fresh-out-of-college feminist campus organizers marched the halls of Congress after divvying up a list of representatives to visit.
Smartly dressed under bulky winter coats, organizers Kelli Musick and Chelsea Yarborough, who work for the national nonprofit the Feminist Majority Foundation (FMF), dropped by the office of Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN).
Blackburn chairs the House of Representatives’ Energy and Commerce Committee’s Select Investigative Panel, created last October principally to investigate Planned Parenthood. The panel formed after the anti-choice front group the Center for Medical Progress (CMP) released a series of heavily edited videos in which it claimed—though never proved—that Planned Parenthood was illegally selling fetal tissue.
As part of their mission that day, Musick and Yarborough left written materials with a staffer asking Blackburn to either redirect her panel’s focus to violent attacks on abortion clinics, or to dissolve it. Specifically, the FMF wanted the congressional panel to investigate the leaders behind CMP, whose rhetoric has fueled a recent spate of threats and attacks against abortion providers, the foundation’s president, Eleanor Smeal, told Rewire in an interview. Though the investigative scope of the panel is actually quite broad, it does not specifically include abortion clinic violence as an area to probe.
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But in the four months since Musick and Yarborough submitted their request to Blackburn’s staff, the panel has forged ahead with its investigation, not just into Planned Parenthood’s fetal tissue donation practices, but into abortion practices generally. This week, House Democrats requested that Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) disband this panel, arguing that it amounts to little more than a biased, expensive witch hunt on fetal tissue researchers and abortion providers.
Really, though, the FMF’s mostly symbolic ask is part of a recent, ongoing push by abortion rights groups to demand that the federal government start taking violence and threats aimed at abortion providers more seriously. National organizations last year began identifying a spike in violent acts, such as arson, vandalism, and death threats, directed at reproductive health clinics and staffers.
NARAL Pro-Choice America started a campaign last November asking the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to investigate these types of activities as domestic terrorism. Just two days after NARAL submitted its letter to the federal agency, an anti-choice extremist opened fire on a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado murdering three people and injuring nine others.
This rise in threats and attacks—further documented in a report published last month by the National Abortion Federation (NAF)—has also prompted abortion rights groups to demand that the government strengthen and fully enforce the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act, a 22-year-old federal law intended to ensure access to abortion clinics and to protect the lives of abortion providers and patients.
“The time for us being quiet is over,” Smeal said at a news conference held in January. “We are determined that we are going to bring the anti-abortion violence issue to the forefront of decision making.”
A Call for More FACE Investigations
The FACE Act, which allows for criminal and civil remedies, makes it a federal crime to use force or the threat of force to prevent people from accessing or providing reproductive health care. For example, the law bans the destruction of clinic property and the practice of blocking someone’s entrance into a clinic.
Before President Bill Clinton signed the FACE Act in 1994, some abortion foes would travel the country and barricade themselves in front of clinic doors. Such blockades came to be known as “operation rescue,” pioneered by the national group of the same name whose current president, Troy Newman, was involved in the aforementioned video campaign targeting Planned Parenthood.
“It’s called ‘interposition,'” Rev. Rusty Lee Thomas told Rewire in a phone interview. He said that this blockading practice is based on a biblical and historical concept, where “someone stands in the gap between the sort of tyrant and its victim.” Thomas said in this case, the doctors providing abortions were the tyrants and the aborted fetuses the victims.
Thomas now runs a group called Operation Save America. Back in the 1990s, he joined anti-choice activists in these ventures. But Thomas said he gave up this particular brand of protest after the DOJ sued him and others under the FACE Act in 1998, after he had attempted to block the entrances of reproductive health clinics in multiple cities in Ohio. Though the federal government ultimately dropped the charges, the threat of prison time and hundreds of dollars in fines ended his blockading days, Thomas said.
“Like anything else, when the price tag goes up, people really do have to weigh that,” he said. “By that time, the government was successful at scaring people and shutting it down. The tactic of ‘operation rescue’ was put to an end.”
Many abortion rights supporters agree with Thomas that the FACE Act curbed clinic blockades. They say this federal policy and similar state laws helped decrease violent attacks, such as clinic bombings and murders of clinic workers and doctors. Smeal said that, according to the FMF’s frequent clinic surveys, the year the FACE Act went into effect, more than 50 percent of abortion clinics reported experiencing violence; today that number has dropped to 20 percent.
Since 1994, the DOJ has filed a total of 27 civil FACE cases in 17 states, a Justice Department spokesperson told Rewire in an email. The spokesperson said the DOJ receives “a great deal of information” from national abortion provider groups, as well as from victims, local law enforcement, and media reports.
As Rewire has reported previously, both criminal and civil prosecutions under FACE tend to fluctuate based on which political party controls the White House: During President George W. Bush’s administration, for example, criminal prosecutions under the FACE Act declined by more than 75 percent to about two a year, compared to an average of ten prosecutions a year under the Clinton administration. During President Obama’s first term, the DOJ reported prosecuting 11 criminal cases under the FACE Act, charging 12 defendants.
During a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in March on the oversight of the Justice Department, Attorney General Loretta Lynch testified that her agency increased criminal prosecutions and civil cases filed under the FACE Act within the “past five or six years.” But she did not give the total number of cases prosecuted under the act. She estimated that under the Obama administration, the DOJ has charged a total of 12 criminal cases criminally and nine civil ones.
Advocates and providers say these figures pale in comparison to the number of acts of violence and harassment annually committed against clinics and providers nationwide.
Since the NAF began tracking abortion clinic violence in 1977, the organization reports that as of 2015, there have been 185 arsons, 42 bombings, 26 attempted murders, and 11 murders, three of which occurred last year.
Advocates are currently waiting to see whether the government will bring a FACE complaint against Robert Lewis Dear Jr., who invoked anti-abortion animus upon arrest and during his first media interview after he admitted to shooting up the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood clinic last November. During her testimony in March, Lynch said the DOJ is reviewing “a possible FACE Act violation” against Dear while his murder case proceeds in state court.
It appears, however, that this case will be in limbo for a while. Earlier this month, a judge ruled that Dear lacks the mental competency to stand trial, after forensic psychologists diagnosed him with a delusion disorder they claim is based on the accused shooter’s fringe political beliefs, among them that federal agents are spying on him. Dear, meanwhile, has been very clear that he does not want to plead insanity; rather, he wants to argue that the attack on Planned Parenthood was legally justified because he was fighting against the greater evil of abortion. For the time being, Dear will be treated at a state psychiatric hospital until, if ever, he is deemed competent to stand trial.
In any case, it might seem unnecessary to charge Dear with a federal felony crime of obstructing access to abortion when he’s already on trial for multiple murders. But some advocates say that charging these crimes under FACE is important symbolically because, as with hate crimes, the FACE Act helps draw the link between crimes like vandalism, arson, and murder, and a specific bias against a group of people. Being able to illustrate a pattern of anti-abortion crimes is necessary in order to bring awareness to law enforcement and the public and to potentially deter anti-choice extremists from threatening or committing acts of violence, they say.
It’s for this reason that physician assistant Susan Cahill wanted to bring a FACE claim against Zachary Klundt, who destroyed her All Families Healthcare clinic in Kalispell, Montana, in March 2014, forcing her to forever shutter her clinic.
According to testimony that surfaced during the sentencing hearing, Klundt had texted his mother hours before the break-in, asking her for information about the “abortionist,” and had told a psychiatrist evaluating him after the break-in that Cahill was a “murderer.” Notably, Klundt’s mother sat on the board of the anti-choice pregnancy center that purchased Cahill’s old building and evicted Cahill.
Yet despite this circumstantial evidence, Klundt testified that he smashed all of Cahill’s medical equipment and personal photos and poured iodine on her patients’ medical records because of serious drug addiction, not anti-abortion animus.
“Even though everybody knows why he did it, legally it wasn’t tried that way,” Cahill told Rewire.
Though third parties can bring civil suits under the FACE Act, Cahill said she likely would be unsuccessful trying to use the statute in this case, because Klundt was only found guilty of vandalism and the court did not make a specific finding about his motivations in committing this crime.
Instead, she is suing Klundt, his family, and the crisis pregnancy center that forced her from her old building, for negligence, nuisance, and “intentional infliction of emotional distress.” She said she hopes that if the case moves forward, discovery proceedings will surface what she suspects were Klundt’s anti-abortion motivations.
To be sure, not all anti-choice activists and abortion clinic protesters escalate to violence. And abortion opponents like Susan B. Anthony List national campaign chair Jill Stanek say the FACE Act goes too far in regulating the actions of protesters. Stanek told Rewire that most of these activists peacefully exercise their free speech rights to protest what they believe is a form of murder.
As an example, Stanek pointed Rewire to a FACE claim in 2010 in which the DOJ sued an activist in West Palm Beach, Florida, accusing her of blocking the flow of traffic at an abortion clinic while she tried to give pamphlets to a couple in a car. A federal judge dismissed the claim as baseless.
Stanek argued that it is a political strategy among abortion rights supporters to “play up” acts of anti-choice violence and threats. She added that abortion opponents also receive their share of attacks and threats, including herself. Upon returning from vacation in late January, Stanek said she found a brick thrown through her window with a note reading: “Quit the pro-life bullshit.” Her local newspaper in Mokena, Illinois, reported the alleged incident. Stanek posted photos she says depict the brick and busted window to Facebook.
While Stanek maintained that most abortion protesters organize peacefully and called people like Dear part of the “lunatic fringe,” she did concede that protesting in front of abortion clinics is, in part, an attempt by her movement “to stigmatize abortion doctors.” The goal is also, she said, to convince patients to turn away from clinics and for clinic staff to quit their jobs.
It’s this stigma and endless, sometimes hostile, presence in front of reproductive health clinics that, abortion providers told Rewire, can help breed eventual violence. But Stanek said the movement is not about to abandon this crucial aspect of their multi-pronged strategy to end legal abortion.
“As far as we’re concerned, the last front, the last place that we have a chance to save a baby is at the abortion clinic,” Stanek said. “Laws haven’t worked, pregnancy care centers haven’t worked, educating hasn’t worked. Now we have the mom going into the abortion clinic. And so that is what compels certain people to go to abortion clinics and try to get women to change their minds.”
Abortion Rights Advocates Say FACE Is Weak on Threats, Harassment
It was lunchtime during the summer of 2012 when Dr. Willie Parker walked outside of Jackson Women’s Health Organization in Jackson, Mississippi. It was his first day at the clinic, which happens to be bright pink and the last standing abortion clinic in the whole state. As such, it’s a regular fixture for protests.
As he walked to and from a nearby sandwich shop, Parker said he was accompanied by a protester who “berated” him the entire way. He felt intimidated and threatened.
Parker, who currently divides his time among six clinics in five states, told Rewire in a phone interview that the FACE Act is a “mixed bag,” arguing it does not fully protect providers, especially when they are not on clinic property. He added that abortion foes have learned all of the federal and local statutes to know how close they can physically reach patients and providers while staying inside the law.
“At what point am I out of the safety created by [the FACE] Act simply because I chose to walk across the street from an abortion clinic to get a sandwich?” he said.
Many abortion providers think FACE is a relatively weak law, particularly when it comes to harassment and threats made against them, an element of clinic violence many advocates say is often ignored at the federal level. Though it forbids “the threat of force,” such a provision is open to interpretation by the courts.
Drexel University law professor David Cohen, who co-authored a recent book about anti-abortion terrorism, told Rewire last year that the FACE Act should be amended to specifically include stalking and harassing abortion providers within the law’s current definition of “intimidate.” Additionally, Cohen recommends directing the courts to assess threats from the perspective of an abortion provider, and increasing penalties.
Threats to providers have drastically increased in the last year, say advocacy groups. They attribute this increase, in part, to the incendiary rhetoric that Planned Parenthood “sells baby parts,” a recurring mantra from the Center for Medical Progress’ smear campaign against the reproductive health-care network.
The NAF tracked 94 threats of direct harm in 2015, compared to just one threat in 2014. According to its latest report, NAF hired an outside security firm in mid-November last year to track online threats, which helped to identify more than 25,000 incidents of hate speech and threats within six weeks.
Meanwhile, researchers at FMF also witnessed a sharp rise in threats against abortion providers last summer. Smeal said researchers were so concerned that they postponed a clinic violence survey that they were prepping to come out earlier this year and instead tried to help clinics prevent threats from escalating into actual attacks.
“We were very, very concerned about the increasing level of threats,” Smeal told Rewire in an interview. “Most of us who have been involved in this for a long time thought it was one of the highest threat levels we’ve ever seen. We were waiting for the violent acts to occur.”
They didn’t have to wait long.
Dr. Savita Ginde, the medical director at the Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, was one of the doctors featured in one of CMP’s videos. After the video streamed online, Ginde allegedly received online death threats, as well as picketers outside of her home. In November, Dear was arrested for shooting up her clinic, declaring afterward, “no more baby parts.” Ginde was not harmed.
The connection of threats to violence worries advocates like Smeal. Extremists do not always act on their threats, but they sometimes do, she said. Or they create a climate that motivates someone to act out what the crowd is cheering for.
It’s for this reason that the reproductive rights community eagerly anticipated the recent trial in the Justice Department’s civil lawsuit against abortion foe Angel Dillard in the hopes that the result might strengthen future enforcement against threats under FACE.
In fact, the opposite might have happened.
The DOJ sued Dillard in 2011 after she mailed a letter to family practitioner Dr. Mila Means. Means was, at the time, training to perform abortions in Wichita to fill the gap left by Dr. George Tiller, whom Scott Roeder murdered two years earlier, admitting it was because Tiller performed abortions. In the letter, Dillard, who has ties to Roeder, told Means that thousands of abortion opponents across the country were monitoring her movements and that should she begin offering abortions, she should take care to check beneath her car for explosives every day “because maybe today is the day someone places an explosive under it.” In the letter, Dillard also referenced Tiller speaking to Means from hell.
The agency interpreted this letter as a threat of violence that violated the FACE Act. Means ended up not opening an abortion practice in Wichita. She told Rewire after the trial that she backed out, in part, because of the cultural and political climate against abortion in Kansas. “The threats work,” she said.
This climate was evidenced in the Wichita jury’s decision reached earlier this month. While the eight jurors did conclude that Dillard’s letter constituted a “true threat” not automatically protected by free speech, they also accepted Dillard’s attorneys’ arguments that her threats were religious in nature rather than violent.
“The letter was intimidating, but it was a more spiritual threat, a more emotional threat,” Adam Cox, the presiding juror, told Rewirein an interview following the verdict.
Thus, they found the letter did not violate the law and did not warrant civil damages or a protective order to keep Dillard away from Means.
Smeal said she was disappointed by the verdict in the Dillard case.
“It just shows you how hard it is to enforce this law,” she told Rewire in a phone interview.
Smeal said she is working behind the scenes with other advocates and lawmakers on efforts to eventually expand and strengthen the FACE Act. In the meantime, she said, law enforcement at all levels should be employing other existing laws to prosecute but also try to prevent violent attacks against abortion providers.
Some advocates, for example, have called on the federal government to treat demonstrated acts of anti-abortion violence, bomb threats, or murder as domestic terrorism.
Since NARAL launched its campaign last fall demanding that the DOJ begin investigating anti-abortion violence as domestic terrorism, NARAL Vice President of Policy Donna Crane said her group has seen more congressional members speaking out about abortion clinic violence as domestic terrorism.
“We think [the campaign] has raised important questions about why all too often anti-choice violence at women’s health centers is seen somehow as different, maybe even somehow a little bit more acceptable,” Crane told Rewire in a phone interview. “We believe that it’s just another flavor of domestic terrorism, and it should be talked about as such and treated as such.”
Smeal said her organization is similarly not backing down from its campaign asking the House committee investigating Planned Parenthood to take to task the activist groups that have, she believes, contributed to a dangerous climate for abortion providers and their patients.
Already, Smeal said, supporters have sent the committee thousands of emails as part of this campaign. And though she said it is difficult to know what effect the FMF’s campaign has had so far, she said she knows congressional members are listening.
Earlier in May, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and the committee’s ranking Democratic member Rep. Janice Schakowsky held a press conference asking Speaker Paul Ryan to disband the House select committee, arguing that its investigation is putting access to reproductive health care as well as the lives of doctors and fetal-tissue researchers in danger, a point Smeal’s group has been making for months now.
“We’re going to keep it up, because we’re worried [the committee is] endangering health-care providers,” Smeal said of her group’s campaign. “We want to continue to shed light on this anti-abortion violence and basically are doing that in every way we can.”
In the second part of Rewire’s “Living in the Shadow of Counterterrorism” series, we look at how Muslim families, particularly women, are forced to confront state violence on a daily basis—from living with the stigma of terrorism, to repairing their broken homes, to navigating what they say is a brutal and biased prison system.
This is the second article in Rewire’s “Living in the Shadow of Counterterrorism” series. You can read the other pieces in the series here.
When Virginia native Mariam Abu-Ali was 14 years old, her life abruptly turned upside down. It was 2003, two years after the September 11 attacks and well into an era of counterterrorism tactics that were systematically hollowing out Muslim residents’ civil liberties and constitutional protections in the United States. But the Abu-Ali family never imagined they would be caught up in the dragnet.
Mariam’s then-22-year-old brother, Ahmed Omar, had been studying in Medina, Saudi Arabia, when he was arrested in connection with a series of May 2003 terrorist attacks in Riyadh.
In an interview with Rewire, Mariam says her brother, who was born in Texas, was held in solitary confinement in a Saudi jail for nearly two years without ever being charged with a crime. During that time, Mariam tells Rewire over the phone, there is strong evidence that he was tortured. Although defense expert Dr. Allen Keller, director of the Program for Survivors of Torture at the Bellevue/NYU Hospital, examined Ahmed and testified at his U.S. trial to the evidence of torture, an appeals court eventually ruled that Ahmed’s statements to Saudi interrogators were “voluntary.”
When, after months of legal pressure from his family, he was finally returned to the United States, a court for the Eastern District of Virginia charged him with multiple counts, including conspiring with an Al-Qaeda cell in Medina to carry out terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. Following a trial that permitted the admission of what Mariam called “a coerced confession,” he was eventually sentenced to 30 years in prison, and later re-sentenced to life.
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Yet as legal experts like Elaine Cassel, author of The War on Civil Liberties: How Bush and Ashcroft Dismantled the Bill of Rights, have pointed out, “Nowhere in the indictment [was] Abu-Ali tied to any terrorist event or action”—either in the United States or in Saudi Arabia.
Instead, his case fell under the shadowy material support statutes that have governed much of the United States’ counterterrorism operation in the years since 9/11, under the USA Patriot Act of 2001. This set of laws allows the U.S. government to preemptively prosecute individuals for engaging in terrorism based on their perceived predisposition toward violence, rather than their actions. Over the past 15 years, hundreds of Muslims have disappeared in a warren of these convoluted laws; they are currently locked up in high-security prisons around the country.
A constellation of families, scholars, activists, and civil rights organizations have long challenged the effects of material support charges, as well as the unfair trials and the lengthy and harsh prison sentences that tend to follow them. Over the past few years, they have come together in a campaign called No Separate Justice, an attempt to unite far-flung groups and individuals who are working to dismantle what they say is a parallel and unjust legal system for Muslim residents in post-9/11 America.
Women like Mariam Abu-Ali have been at the forefront of the movement—along with Zurata Duka and Shahina Parveen, whose stories Rewire has previously reported on—advocating on behalf of their loved ones.
In the second part of Rewire’s “Living in the Shadow of Counterterrorism” series, we look at how families, particularly women, are forced to confront state violence on a daily basis—from living with the stigma of terrorism, to repairing their broken homes, to navigating what they say is a brutal and biased prison system.
“Dangerous” Minds, Draconian Measures
Mariam Abu-Ali says her brother’s case represents many of the civil rights violations that have marred the decade and a half since 9/11, a sentiment that is echoed in the final opinion on Ahmed Omar’s case penned by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.
In its unanimous decision to uphold the guilty verdict on nine terrorism-related counts against Ahmed in 2008, the three-judge bench wrote:
Persons of good will may disagree over the precise extent to which the formal criminal justice process must be utilized when those suspected of participation in terrorist cells and networks are involved … the criminal justice system is not without those attributes of adaptation that will permit it to function in the post-9/11 world.
While the opinion does not explicitly state what these “attributes of adaptation” are, studies on counterterrorism indicate they could refer to any number of legal practices that have become normalized since September 11. In particular, they could refer to the use of material support statutes, which have played a significant role in the prosecution of Muslim Americans like Ahmed Omar.
As FBI Assistant Director Gary Bald testified to the Senate Committee on the Judiciary in 2004:
It would be difficult to overstate the importance of the material support statutes to our ongoing counterterrorism efforts. The statutes are sufficiently broad to include terrorist financers and supporters who provide a variety of resources to terrorist networks. The statutes provide the investigative predicate which allows intervention at the earliest possible stage of terrorist planning to identify and arrest terrorists and supporters before a terrorist attack occurs. [Emphasis added.]
In short, material support statutes have enabled federal authorities to prosecute people based on suspicion of what they might do in the future rather than any overt criminal act. The statutes primarily refer to “support” for terrorist networks as weapons, arms training, or direct funding. Prosecutors, courts, and juries, however, have interpreted the laws much more broadly to encompass the sharing of religious or political texts online, casual conversations between friends, or charitable donations to organizations in areas controlled by terrorist groups.
In many instances, material support charges have amounted to nothing more than thought crimes, in which law-abiding Muslim residents have been penalized simply for expressing their religious and political views.
According to a 2014 report by Human Rights Watch, material support cases rose sharply in the decade following the September 11 attacks. Prior to 9/11, just six individuals had been charged under these laws in the United States. In the decade following, 168 of 917 domestic terrorism convictions analyzed by HRW fell under such statutes, accounting for 18 percent of all terrorism-related convictions in that time period.
Even a cursory look at some of these cases is sufficient to grasp the breadth of these laws, which have pushed deep into Muslim communities, tearing through many layers of social fabric along the way.
In 2012, the New York Times published an op-ed by Yale professor Andrew March on the case of Tarek Mehanna, a Pittsburgh-born doctor and community leader who was sentenced to 17 and a half years in prison because his opinions about Islam, expressed online, were deemed a form of material support for terrorist causes.
March wrote in the Times:
As a political scientist specializing in Islamic law and war, I frequently read, store, share and translate texts and videos by jihadi groups. As a political philosopher, I debate the ethics of killing. As a citizen, I express views, thoughts and emotions about killing to other citizens. As a human being, I sometimes feel joy (I am ashamed to admit) at the suffering of some humans and anger at the suffering of others. At Mr. Mehanna’s trial, I saw how those same actions can constitute federal crimes.
March’s op-ed illustrates a frightening truth about material support statutes: They allow for the preemptive prosecution of individuals who have not yet committed a crime but whom the government deems capable of possibly committing a crime in the future.
Other cases, such as the Holy Land Five, demonstrate a pattern in which material support laws have essentially criminalized charitable giving. The case involved the founders of the Holy Land Foundation, a Muslim charity that provided humanitarian aid to the needy, including women and children in Palestine. Though the government concluded that the Holy Land Foundation never directly aided a terrorist organization, it nonetheless prosecuted five of its members for funneling aid through charitable committees into areas controlled by Hamas, a designated Palestinian terrorist group, thereby violating material support statutes. Journalists called the verdict an attack on Islam itself, particularly the practice of zakat, which mandates that Muslims allocate a portion of their wealth or earnings for charitable causes.
From its very inception, the No Separate Justice (NSJ) campaign has fought this flawed notion, with mothers and sisters of the accused becoming the movement’s most prominent spokespeople. NSJ initially coalesced around the case of a Muslim American named Fahad Hashmi.
Hashmi had been working toward a master’s degree in international relations at London Metropolitan University when he was arrested at Heathrow Airport in 2006. In 2007 he became the first U.S. citizen to be extradited following the loosening of restrictions around the process after 9/11, according to an article by Jeanne Theoharis, a political science professor at Brooklyn College and co-founder of the NSJ campaign, who taught Hashmi as an undergraduate.
He was initially held in pretrial solitary confinement at the Metropolitan Correction Center (MCC) in downtown Manhattan. MCC’s notoriety was cemented in a 2010 New York Timesarticle that quoted a former Guantanamo detainee, who was also held at the MCC, as saying the Cuban military prison was “more pleasant” and “more relaxed” than the federal detention facility in New York City.
Hashmi was also subjected to special administrative measures, government restrictions on a terror suspect’s communications that amount to a gag order on the case and their conditions of confinement. Advocates say these were drastic measures relative to the charges against him: Hashmi’s only crime, according to Theoharis’ article, was allowing an acquaintance to spend a night in his apartment, an acquaintance who would later deliver a suitcase of raincoats and waterproof socks to Al Qaeda members. This same acquaintance would later become a cooperating witness for the government in exchange for a more lenient sentence, and testify against Hashmi in a trial that ended with a guilty verdict and a 15-year sentence.
Stunned by Hashmi’s conditions of confinement, a group called Theaters Against War linked arms with Educators for Civil Liberties and the Muslim Justice Initiative to host weekly vigils outside the MCC in 2009. These gatherings, which continue to this day, form the nucleus of the NSJ movement.
“We wanted to build a coalition so people from different backgrounds could bring their institutional expertise and moral conscience into the same arena as family members, and create a space where people could express outrage at what was happening,” Sally Eberhardt, one of NSJ’s earliest organizers, tells Rewire.
At first, larger civil liberties groups kept their distance, possibly because “this isn’t exactly the most funder-friendly issue in the world,” Eberhardt suggests. But advocates persisted, holding candlelight protests even on the bitterest winter nights, singing songs and chanting poems in the shadow of the detention center. Those intimate gatherings formed the basis of what is now a national movement, encompassing multiple organizations and dozens of families.
Two outspoken leaders are the Sadequee sisters, Bangladeshi Americans who have been among the strongest advocates of prisoners’ rights and the most public critics of the government’s targeting of Muslim men—including their brother, Shifa.
From the Streets to the Prayer Rug: Pushing Back Against State Violence
Ehsanul “Shifa” Sadequee was born in Virginia and grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, the youngest of four siblings in a Bangladeshi-American family. According to his sisters, he was a curious and exceptionally kind child, who by his early teens had grown into a devout and diligent religious scholar.
In 2005, when he was just 18 years old, Shifa traveled to Bangladesh. In April 2006 he got married, but 12 days after his wedding, Bangladeshi authorities took and detained him, apparently at the behest of the U.S. government, for allegedly making false statements to the FBI at John F. Kennedy Airport on his way to Bangladesh the previous year.
Shifa’s sister Sonali, who is based in Atlanta, tells Rewire that this initial charge and arrest, which the High Court Division of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh later deemed a violation of international laws, was a terrifying process for the entire family. For days after Shifa was taken they had no news of his whereabouts. Fears that he would somehow wind up in Guantanamo, ensnared in the web of the “war on terror,” gnawed at the edges of their minds but the family pushed these aside, telling themselves that because Shifa had done nothing wrong, they had nothing to fear. With the phone ringing off the hook and the television on 24/7, they gleaned what scraps of information they could from CNN news reports.
It transpired that upon his arrest in Bangladesh, Shifa was stripped naked, wrapped in plastic, and flown via Alaska to New York, Sonali says, where he spent over three months at the Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) in Brooklyn before being transferred to the federal penitentiary in Atlanta, Georgia. Shifa spent more than three years in pretrial solitary confinement before ever being formally charged with a crime, his sister said.
Once Shifa was inside the criminal justice system, Sonali explains, federal authorities quickly dropped the initial charges against him and began to build a case around allegations of material support.
At the heart of the case was Shifa’s renown as an Islamic scholar with a larger-than-life online persona—he had studied classical Arabic and the history of religion as a student in Canada and was a gifted translator, often sharing interpretations of Islamic or political texts on the internet. The Sadequee family says Shifa’s trial was riddled with shortcomings, including the use of previously classified evidence and the selection of jurors who admitted to having anti-Muslim bias—which Human Rights Watch says is a common problem. In addition, the prosecution used Shifa’s ideology as a brush with which to paint him as a fearsome radical, on the verge of carrying out a violent attack on U.S. soil.
Although Shifa, according to Sonali, never engaged in any actions beyond practicing free speech, he was found guilty on four terrorism counts in 2009 and, at the age of 23, sentenced to 17 years in federal prison. He represented himself at the trial, making him one of the first Muslim youth to do so in a national security case, according to his sisters.
Both Sonali and Sharmin Sadequee, who is based in New York, have been mobilizing on his behalf for over a decade. After years of shielding themselves from the backlash of isolation and Islamophobia that invariably accompanies charges of terrorism, the young women have turned their advocacy into an art form.
In an interview with Rewire, Sonali explains that when her brother was arrested, the women in her family developed an organic division of labor that allowed them to form a united front against the horror and uncertainty that had descended on their lives.
“I was already plugged into the social justice community in Atlanta, so I saw my role as tapping into that support network, bringing resources to my family to make sure we all understood the human rights issues involved, ensuring we had the skills to confront the media, which was bombarding us at the time,” she says. Her sister, meanwhile, dealt with the prisons, navigating bureaucratic visitation rules and ensuring Shifa had what he needed on the inside.
“Sharmin and my mother also reached out to the Muslim community, to mosques and other groups,” Sonali continues. “And the rest of the time, my mother was on the prayer rug. I don’t know how many hours she spent kneeling and praying.”
They built a website that is always fresh with the latest news about Shifa’s case and serves as a hub for their activism—they recently announced a letter-writing campaign to mark Ramadan, inviting more than 1,000 followers of a Justice for Shifa Facebook group to send greeting cards to Muslim prisoners. Countless hours are eaten up attending rallies, speaking on panels, or sitting with reporters, patiently unpacking the messy details of Shifa’s case.
The irony is that while the Sadequee sisters make a powerful team, they are constantly called upon to do what they say is the hardest thing of all: relive a time in their lives they would rather forget.
“I don’t like to do these interviews,” Sonali says bluntly. “I don’t enjoy them at all—but I recognize they have to be done. Only by sharing what happened to us, by talking about it, will others learn from it.”
They say they have been trying to create collective responses to state violence resulting from the “war on terror,” and hope to combat the government’s tactics of fear and isolation by building community power and resiliency. But this is easier said than done: Not only must the Sadequees contend with the lingering stigma of Shifa’s trial, but they also, until very recently, had to deal with the trauma of visiting their brother in a prison unit that has been described by former detainees as “Little Gitmo.”
CMUs: “A Religious and Political Quarantine”
Between 2009 and 2015, Shifa was imprisoned in the Communications Management Unit (CMU) at the federal detention center in Terre Haute, Indiana, a segregated portion of the prison comprised almost exclusively of Muslim men that has been the subject of a legal battle since 2010.
This past March, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) urged the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia to reinstate a lawsuit the group first filed six years ago challenging CMUs, which the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) quietly ushered into existence under the Bush administration—the first in 2006 in Indiana, and the second in 2008 in Marion, Illinois.
Conditions in these units, which house 60 to 70 prisoners combined, are harsh, according to the CCR: Although inmates are not held in isolation, they are banned from having any physical contact with family members during visits, and their calls are restricted to two per week, each for 15 minutes. By contrast, other BOP inmates are allowed 300 minutes worth of calls every month.
CCR claims the CMUs violate prisoners’ procedural due process rights, and argue that placement in these units is both arbitrary and retaliatory, with Muslim prisoners vastly overrepresented.
“Between 2006 and 2014, about 170 individuals filtered through these units and 101 of them—about 60 percent—were Muslims, even though Muslims only constitute 6 percent of the general federal prison population,” CCR Senior Staff Attorney Rachel Meeropol tells Rewire in a phone interview.
CCR reported in 2010 that in Marion, 72 percent of current CMU prisoners were Muslim, a 1,200 percent overrepresentation, while two-thirds of the CMU population in Terra Haute was Muslim, 1,000 percent higher than the national average of Muslim prisoners in federal facilities.
“We are challenging the lack of procedural protections before prisoners are placed in the CMU and also alleging that placement is in retaliation for protected political and religious speech,” Meeropol says, pointing out that inmates in the CMU are seldom given reasons for why they were moved into the units, and are routinely denied opportunities to earn their release into general population.
“CMUs are essentially a religious and political quarantine, the same kind of segregation that has supposedly been outlawed in this country,” she added.
In response to multiple requests for comment about these allegations, Justin Long with the Office of Public Affairs at the Information, Policy and Public Affairs Division for the BOP said in an email to Rewire, “The Bureau of Prisons cannot comment on matters currently in litigation,” and directed Rewire to the Bureau’s web page on CMUs.
In addition to being hard on inmates, Meeropol says CMUs are also “debilitating” for families, especially those with young children who cannot communicate with their fathers through letters, and often cannot understand why they are forced to speak to them through glass, using phones that are monitored by prison staff.
“Several mothers have told me that they’ve stopped bringing their children on visits because it was just too devastating,” Meeropol says.
The Collective Trauma of “Supermax” Prisons and Solitary Confinement
The alternative, some might say, is even worse. All over the country, Muslim prisoners are serving decades-long sentences in solitary confinement, which the United Nations has recognized as a form of torture. Advocates and relatives of terror suspects, or those incarcerated on terrorism charges, have long cried foul over these conditions of confinement, which they say is a form of collective punishment on entire families.
Zurata Duka, whose three sons, Dritan, Shain, and Eljvir were arrested in a manufactured terror plot by the government in 2007, is well aware of the toll of solitary confinement. Her sons have spent dozens of years between them in complete isolation, including long stints at the maximum-security facility in Florence, Colorado.
“My sons are strong—they never let us see them cry, even when their daughters are crying on the other side of the glass,” she says to Rewire. “But once my son Dritan told me he nearly lost his mind in isolation.”
Before his arrest, Zurata tells Rewire, Dritan had been very close with his youngest daughter. Every night he would put her to sleep, stroking her hair and singing lullabies. In those early days after he was taken away, the little girl would lie awake at night, calling out for her father. Unbeknownst to the family, thousands of miles away, Dritan was experiencing something similar.
“He told me, ‘Mom, I don’t know what happened. For three days I just lay there, stroking my pillow, thinking it was [his daughter]. I didn’t know who I was and I don’t know how I came back,’” Zurata recalls him saying.
His daughter was so desperate to see him that one day she penned a note to the president. It read: “Dear Mr. Obama. Today is my birthday. I am five years old. Please, if you can, bring my father back just for one day, so I can hug and kiss him, and then, if you want, you can take him back again.” Zurata says she mailed the letter to the White House. She never heard back.
Almost every family has a similar story. According to Mariam Abu-Ali, conditions of confinement often come up at annual gatherings of affected families, which she organizes in her role as director of the Prisoners and Families Committee at the National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms.
“About 90 percent of the attendees are women,” she says in a phone interview with Rewire, “and they bring a lot of pain and anxiety into the room. But I’d say the meetings are cathartic,” she adds. “It’s the place where we build bonds with the only people who know what we’re going through.”
Several women who’ve attended the conference in the past tell Rewire they are powerful spaces, offering families a rare chance to speak openly about their lives without fear of being misunderstood, judged, or pitied. It is also a moment for families, particularly women, to share in the collective nature of their trauma, especially the pain of incarceration.
In the 13 years that her brother has served, Mariam says she has come to the painful realization that prisons don’t just lock up individuals—they are a form of bondage on the entire family.
Because Ahmed Omar is imprisoned 1,600 miles from the family’s home in Virginia, in one of the BOP’s maximum-security facilities in Colorado, they only see him once or twice a year. Visits are limited to three family members at a time, meaning Mariam has not seen Ahmed in two years. He reserves his two monthly phone calls for his parents, so she can only hope to talk to him when she visits them. Even these calls are a source of enormous frustration. As she wrote in a recent op-ed:
My mom has spent every Tuesday and Thursday of the last decade, at home, sitting by the phone, patiently waiting for a call that sometimes did not come. And when the call does come, what can one even discuss in 15 minutes? Do you ask him how he’s doing? How can you even ask him how he’s feeling? Do you discuss his prison conditions? His legal case? How do you break the news to him when his aunt or grandfather has passed away?
“What you have to understand is that my brother’s case wasn’t just one devastating ‘moment’ in our lives—it’s a lifelong struggle,” Mariam tells Rewire. “This is not something you ever get used to, or accept. It’s about learning new ways of coping every single day, like living with a chronic illness.”
Each day brings fresh challenges, and tough decisions. For instance, Mariam used to maintain a website, manage a Facebook page, and post daily updates on a Twitter account all relating to her brother’s case. One day she felt she just couldn’t do it anymore.
“At a point you have to ask yourself—do I work full time and provide for my family or do I advocate full time on behalf of my loved one?” she asks. “This work, it’s emotionally draining, it’s a daily struggle and it doesn’t necessarily get easier with time.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misidentified the officials whom Shifa Sadequee had been accused of making false statements to. It was FBI officers, not immigration officials.